Researchers found that when people who are sad are exposed to pictures of indulgent food or indulgent words, their sadness highlights the negative consequences of indulging and encourages them to indulge less.
The study debunks the idea that people comfort-eat or indulge in emotional eating when they are sad. Emotional eating is eating in response to a negative effect. But according to the new findings, sadness can actually discourage you from consuming indulgent foods.
Authors Anthony Salerno and Juliano Laran from the University of Miami, and Chris Janiszewski from the University of Florida said that instant gratification and the pleasure derived from consuming excessive chocolate and deep-fried foods can lead way to a double-edged sword of negative consequences ranging from weight gain to feelings of low self-esteem.
However, this type of self-destructive behaviour may be prevented simply by making a person feel sad, they added.
In a series of five experiments, researchers studied the behaviour of participants who were exposed to either indulgent or neutral words or images and then made to feel sad.
In one study, participants were asked to either look at a series of print ads that featured pleasurable foods like pizza and chocolate cake or to look at neutral print ads featuring products like washing machines and electric cars.
Immediately after viewing the print ads, the participants were asked to complete a writing task that made them feel sad.
At the end of the study, the participants were given the opportunity to eat indulgent foods like M&M's or chocolate chip cookies.
Study results showed that when people were first exposed to pleasurable information and then made to feel sad, they decreased their consumption of indulgent foods.
The researchers also found that these participants were more likely to indicate how consuming indulgent foods could lead to health problems.
In contrast, when people were exposed to neutral information and made to feel sad, they increased their consumption of indulgent foods.
"Our research has important implications for consumers, particularly as obesity remains a major health concern in the United States," researchers said.
"For brands looking to understand what triggers help and hinder people in their ability to eat healthy foods, we provide insight into when sadness might aid consumers in becoming less prone to indulging in unhealthy foods on a daily basis," they added.
The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.